I have always been captivated by the realism and voluptuousness of this frieze. This trompe l’oeil design, with its drapery swags, ostrich plumes, jewels, and tassels, is an over-the-top depiction of luxury materials. The attention to detail required to bring this degree of realism to light is exemplary. The drapery swags are flocked, then overprinted with several colors to create highlights and shadows that better capture the look of silk velvet. The bottom edge of the frieze is cut out, further enhancing the 3-D quality of the swags and tassels. The ostrich plumes are delicately printed so they appear light and fluffy and seem to project out from the wall. The pearls and gemstones are each printed in five to six different monochromatic shades in order to achieve the sense of roundness that makes it seem as though they could be plucked off the paper.
The concept of “tenting” a room—or draping the walls with fabric—was popularized by architects Percier and Fontaine, under the direction of Napoleon at the turn of the 19th century. This fashion was soon translated into wallpaper designs, which were less expensive and easier to install than actual fabrics. Drapery papers could be purchased in the form of sidewalls, borders, and friezes like this example.
From the early 1800s to the mid-1970s, this frieze hung in the parlor at Locust Thicket in Lynchburg, Virginia, a home built in the 1790s. The paper was originally hung over a striped wallpaper which can be seen imprinted on the reverse of the frieze. All early papers were printed with water soluble pigments, so when the frieze was hung over the sidewall, the wet paste on the back of the frieze caused the transfer of the striped pattern. The residents of this house survived three wars; one battle of the Civil War was actually staged on the property surrounding the house. The wallpaper managed to survive these episodes relatively intact. Although it has faded and suffers from flaking pigment, it remains quite robust.